Expiration Dates and Rework in Meat and Poultry Processing

All perishable food products naturally contain bacteria.  Spoilage bacteria multiply over time when products are not frozen and send off signals that tell a consumer that this product may not taste good when eaten.  Spoilage bacteria may create an odor, like the smell of sour milk; they may make meat appear to be slippery or slimy; and they may cause a color change or cause mold to appear.   If a consumer somehow ignored these signs and actually consumed a product despite an off odor, the eating experience is unlikely to be a good one, but it’s also unlikely to make the person ill.

By contrast, the kind of bacteria that do cause serious foodborne illnesses are invisible and send no warning signs via odor or appearance. Pathogenic bacteria also don’t suddenly appear as a product nears its expiration date.  Rather, these types of harmful bacteria more likely result from cross contamination during handling or processing.  In fact, a product that becomes contaminated with a pathogen could be weeks away from its expiration date yet very harmful to the person who eats it.  Fortunately, new technologies in plants and careful inspection procedures have reduced the presence of these bacteria on meat and poultry products and the illnesses associated with them, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Product Dates

In the United States, different dating systems are used on products.  Some are “expiration dates.”  Others are “best if used by” dates.  Still others are “sell by dates.”  Regardless of the dating format, no product suddenly becomes “unsafe” on the date printed on the product.  Product dating is used to ensure that product is rotated properly during distribution and to ensure that the consumer has a positive eating experience. The dates are designed to ensure that products are high quality for the consumer and have little, if anything, to do with food safety though they are often thought of in this manner.

Many consumers now take advantage of discounted family packs meat and poultry or warehouse size packages. They often bag and freeze portions of these large packages for later use.   According to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, “Once a perishable product is frozen, it doesn’t matter if the date expires because foods kept frozen continuously are safe indefinitely.”

Think of it this way.  If you purchase hot dogs for a 4th of July barbecue and they expire July 10, but you freeze two extra packages July 5, the clock stops or pauses on that date.  If the products are kept frozen below zero degrees, they no longer expire on July 10.  Rather, the clock unpauses and starts again when they are defrosted.

Product Dates in the Plant Setting

In a plant setting, the same rules apply. Sometimes a processing plant may buy chicken thighs to make chicken patties, but find out they have more thigh than they need because a large order is suddenly cancelled.  The plant may choose to freeze those thighs until another order is received.  If the order is received after the expiration date on the frozen packages, it is still acceptable to use those products because the clock stopped ticking when they were frozen.

When plants freeze extra product like this, they keep careful storage records.  While a product remains safe during freezing, after an extended period of time, the quality of a product can be impacted.  Plants are careful to use frozen products within recommended quality timeframes to ensure a good eating experience.

‘Reworking’ Product During Meat and Poultry Processing

Another practice that has prompted questions is the practice of “reworking” products during processing. Anyone who has ever baked sugar cookies knows that sometimes when cutting cookies into shapes, dough may crack. Rather than throw the dough away, it is added back to remaining dough, reworked and rolled again.

The same is true in a meat plant. Sometimes when making hamburger patties, a patty may break.  Likewise, a chicken nugget may occasionally be misshapen. Rather than discard a wholesome product that has a simple quality defect, these products can be added back to the batch to be reprocessed.

In the U.S., products are reworked into the same “lot.”  A “lot” is specified time period of production and may be two hours, four hours, eight hours or another time frame depending upon the plant.  Hamburger patties that break in half, for example, might be reprocessed into that the same production lot. They are safe and wholesome, but they have a quality defect. These same broken patties would not be held for two days and added to different day’s product.  This helps keep recordkeeping organized and ensures that if a problem with Monday’s production were discovered later, no part of Monday’s production would have been added to Tuesday’s production, which would expand the scope of any problem that may occur.

In the U.S., all of this is overseen by Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors and all products must be handled and processed according to strict regulations written by FSIS.

Increasingly, nations around the world operate in more similar ways.  Global brands and global trade have prompted countries to coordinate and harmonize food safety rules.  While some differences remain, nations around the world, from China to Australia, from Brazil to the United States, have the same goal:  to ensure the quality and safety of the foods they produce so they may ensure healthy, well-nourished populations.